by Curt Mills
Monday, 18
October 2021

Colin Powell: a would-be President ruined by Iraq

He was once described as 'a modern George Washington'
by Curt Mills
US Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he described as one that could contain anthrax during a UN meeting.

Imagine a world in which Bush-era Republicans retired at 60. 

Before the administration of George W. Bush, America’s most destructive president, Donald Rumsfeld would have been the youngest Secretary of Defense in history, White House Chief of Staff, Middle East envoy, a successful businessman and a would-be president.

Meanwhile, Colin Powell, a working class, Jamaican-American kid from Harlem turned war hero, would have seen out his time as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and national security advisor during a successful war (Iraq I). 

Dick Cheney… would still be Dick Cheney. But it was Powell, who died today of Covid complications, who stood out above the rest as one of the most highly regarded men in Washington. If the country’s first black secretary of state had hung it up in the late 1990’s, he would have retired an unabashed hero. 

In fact, Powell’s stock was running so high that in 1996, the first black president might have been a Republican. Clinton was beaten badly in the 1994 midterms and the Republicans needed a charismatic standard-bearer to finish him off. “The country will be looking for a man of a certain character,” Republican kingmaker William J. Bennet told Powell. “We’re always playing out some version of George Washington, the indispensable man. …And you’re him, you know. If there’s a modern Washington, you’re him”. 

But dashing the hopes of the GOP, Powell chose not to run.

Years later, Powell became a key figure in the George W. Bush administration, serving as Secretary of State from 2001-2005. His infamous address to the United Nations in early 2003 — at the urging of his administration colleagues, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Defense honcho Paul Wolfowitz, among others — will forever mar his record. As the man with the greatest crossover appeal in the Bush administration, Powell did the sales job for a war he privately had great reservations about. 

Powell, in public, made the case with a calculated politician’s passion, arguing that the absence of evidence was no evidence of absence. “Tell me, answer me,” the then-Secretary of State told the U.N. Security Council, “are the inspectors to search the house of every government official, every Baath Party member and every scientist in the country to find the truth, to get the information they need, to satisfy the demands of our council?”

Powell’s self-defence years later, in 2016, that the address was “a great intelligence failure” didn’t cut it, any more than Tony Blair’s insistence that year that “I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you can ever believe” will save him from the judgement of history. I’ve had the occasion to know folks in Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz’s orbit, and to them, Powell is the real villain because he didn’t really believe, but plunged ahead anyway. It’s an extremist’s view, but it’s not without a point. 

As the late journalist Mark Perry told Harper’s in 2010:

In Islam, such true believers are called takfiris—they believe that the true enemy is within. That is what Osama bin Laden believes: that the greatest threat to his program comes not from the 10th Mountain Division of the 101st Airborne but from within the ranks of otherwise devout Muslims, Islam’s fifth column. 
- Mark Perry, Harper's

There were administration officials who were ousted over policy differences in those bad, dangerous days of the early 2000’s, such as Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, who denounced the Iraq war pretty much in real time. 

At the moment of his greatest testing, Colin Powell was not one of them — and alongside his accomplishments and virtues, that will always be remembered.

Join the discussion

  • “…with a calculated politician’s passion
    I think that’s what Powell really was–a highly skilled politician even more than a soldier. He was a chameleon who changed positions (or appeared to change positions) when it suited his ends. He was certainly considered as a possible presidential candidate at one point but who knows what kind of president he would have been. His true beliefs were always so well hidden.

  • Agreed on all points. Powell was a wobbly yes-man, a military careerist who never wanted to rock the boat. For this very reason, he was well-liked by both parties, hence his success in climbing the ladder in DC. Also, a well-meaning and patriotic man. And for this very reason, easily manipulated by Cheney and Rumsfeld. In addition, he was an articulate and talented speaker, which Americans found reassuring. But his real leadership skills were overstated by the media due to his racial identity. And, yes, after fighting cancer for 3 or 4 years, it’s just an absurd lie to say he died from covid.

  • It is impossible to overstate how Powell was made by the Bushies, after Carter had him promoted to general, a promotion he did not deserve, as he was a massive beneficiary of positive discrimination.
    Alberto Gonzales. Huh? Oh, you’ve forgotten him because he’s so….forgettable? He was Bush’s Attorney General–an extremely stupid, incompetent Mexican, adopted and promoted by the Bush family.
    Colin Powell was essentially the same, a bit smarter than Gonzales, but the bar is very low. Because of their wealth and class, nobless oblige required the “promotion” of these “disadvantaged” minorities, brought into the fold of wealth and power to be trotted out as needed. The Bushes, perhaps the last of this class system, used this system so well, and probably believed that it was, to a degree, on merit. See, I have a black friend. Woke and virtue signalling before it was a thing.
    Gonzales was a “useful idiot” for the Bushes. Colin Powell the same, though he became pretty big but lacked courage when it was really needed.
    It is absolutely disgusting to see these hagiographies–BBC among the worst offenders–gushing over how Powell put country over self. Tosh!
    He was a war criminal, a liar, a coward, a traitor. When he could have redeemed himself, he put self over country.
    Good riddance!

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